I’m not one to latch onto another story and then write about it, although I admit there are a lot of bloggers who do that sort of thing. But this was one issue that I found to be so significant that I felt that it needed further attention, and perhaps even more perspective. An article appeared today in Salon.com that contained a personal narrative from Melissa Petro, a woman who had previously outed herself as a former sex worker and stripper before becoming a school teacher. As a result, she was hit hard by the conservative channels of the press, and then right after that by practically every other channel of the press as well. Even the governor felt it necessary to chime in demanding that she be fired. In all, she was completely railroaded out of the teaching profession, and by reading her personal story, you can also get the sense that she pretty much has a difficult time today of getting a job anywhere.
Now, I’ve written before about how I used to go to school with a lot of women who were sex workers while paying their way through school. At San Francisco State University, in certain disciplines, it was practically a right of passage. I couldn’t tell you how many friends I had who used to ask me to come see them dance as a stripper because at the time they were actually proud of what they were doing. Not all of them were, of course, but at one point in someone’s life, there is a sense that this is a perspective of freedom that not many other occupations can allow.
Unfortunately, that occupation is now competing against the sense that mainstream America has that anything involving sex is bad. And if you happen to work anywhere near children, it’s almost a given that you should be tarred and feathered and run out of town like the wandering gypsy you are. I won’t even get into the dichotomy issue of how most of the clients of these women tend to be the same men whose wives are horrified that these women did what they did; there’s always this sense that these “bad” women come from some place that has no interaction with the rest of society. And once they show up, they have to be run out quickly, or little Johnny might grow up to be a bad person, or might be forced into sex with her, or whatever bizarre hyper-fictious ridiculousness seems to be the fear that emerges in these situations.
The simple fact of the matter is, these women are all products of our society and civilization. They were churned out by the system at one time or another, and if we all want to go into this “they’re all bad for doing what they did” then we should take some sort of responsibility for putting them into those positions in the first place. We can’t have the luxury of just assuming that people are bad by nature, and therefore it was their fault that they chose to do those kinds of jobs that the rest of ridicule and condemn.
But even saying that, there’s an immediate assumption that stripping or sex work is bad. Is it really? What is so wrong about someone who does that sort of activity? What makes that person any less “moral” or less worthy of normal civilization than any woman who has carnal knowledge with a man as part of a relationship? Discounting the whole “it’s only okay in marriage” sort of nonsense that predates 1950, “moral” people don’t really make all that much of a fuss about people who engage in sex in relationships with each other. Granted, they don’t wanted specific details, but they really don’t care. So why is someone who is engaged in this activity on a normal basis considered someone to be less worthy of belonging to our daily civilization?
Over the years, I’ve known a lot of women who existed as sex workers. For a time, I got my start creating web pages for professional dominatrices, mainly because they were the ones who really fed the business back then when the Internet was started. Strangely enough, my main clientele were professional dominants and churches. And quite often, the references I received crossed both demographics (meaning that quite often my professional dominants contacts came to me from the web sites of churches I created or maintained, and the other way around as well). We’d like to think there’s a serious disconnect or separation between both avenues, but there isn’t.
What’s really concerning parents these days is not the sex worker “problem” but the belief that sexual activity is starting with people at a younger age, and they need a criminal to point to in order to feel better about the situation. But the reality of the situation is that by compartmentalizing sex outside of acceptable parameters, we make it so that younger people see it as something to explore out of the attention of parents, and then families pay for the consequences. Most young people are getting their sex information by watching Hollywood and the music industry sexualize every woman who has anything to do with entertainment so that the expectation is that it’s something good and to be pursued. There is absolutely no connection between a stripper and a music starlett, yet conservative media condemns the stripper and hypes the product of industry. Yet, if you really think about it, the stripper caters to a clientele that is strictly adult, whereas the music industry and Hollywood will take anyone with access to an MP3 player or a dvd player.
And with all that said, I’ve kind of wandered off the topic of the original person herself, Melissa Petro. In her own words, she actually felt herself empowered by her experience as a stripper and sex worker (well, more as a stripper than as a sex worker as she didn’t seem to say too many good things about the latter). Unlike most stories of sex workers, we’re told of horrible conditions and how they were forced into the experience. She came to it on her own, and it was a productive environment for her until she found her way out. And then she made something of her life, becoming a teacher who works with children.
We should have been congratulating her, not condemning her. If we accept the erroneous argument that sex work is bad, she got out of it and came back to us to live a more productive life. She should have been the poster child for how to win through horrible circumstances. But she wasn’t treated that way. She was eventually fired, and she has little recourse of ever working again, in any job. Her own narrative explains how she moved in with her boyfriend to survive.
What bothers me most is that no one else seems bothered by this. We’ll go on with our lives and criticize her for having made the mistake of revealing her past to the rest of the world. In other words, her was a teacher giving us a teaching moment, and none of us learned a thing.